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Feature

Manifest Beauty

Brazil's backlands inspire its artists

By Tory Cooney | HUMANITIES, November/December 2013 | Volume 34, Number 6

—All images by Paul Primeau, courtesy of "Bandits & Heroes, Poets & Saints."

Beyond the Atlantic coast and the colorful cities that sprawl along the shore, lies the sertão, northeastern Brazil’s parched and unforgiving backlands, a place where stunted trees, thorny bushes, and the occasional cactus seem to be the only things that grow willingly. Stubborn, weathered cattle graze, watched by the stubborn, weathered people who dare make their homes in a hardened land subject to catastrophic droughts that leave the inhospitable sertão uninhabitable. During those years, retirantes flee south, hoping to feed their families until they can return home.

“The relentless sun parches the earth and dries up the streams and causes the droughts,” explains cocurator Marion Jackson, indicating the Omonstro do Sertão, a tricolor woodcut print depicting a shaggy, hoofed creature with razor-sharp teeth and wide eyes staring from a head shaped to mimic the sun. Above the “monster” reads a poem, translated by cocurator Barbara Cervenka: “I am a beautiful thing / Made by the creator . . . / But in the sertão, I am a terror.”

The steely resolve inspired by the harsh conditions of Brazil’s backlands can be seen in the carved face of a stoic woman backed by a brick-red wall. She clutches an infant in her arms while balancing a bundle of the family’s possessions on her head as another child clings shyly to her skirt, all barefoot and bound for somewhere else—anywhere else. The wood sculpture, Woman of the Sertão, is expert, precise, stark in its simplicity, and unnerving in its raw, emotive power.

But little is known about its creator, Canarana, who lives in a small, isolated mountain town called Morro do Chapéu in the interior of Bahia. His work has been found in Salvador at both the Instituto de Artesanato Visconde de Mauá, an organization that displays the work of artisans of Bahia, and in the Mercado Modelo, the city’s large market for crafts and popular art. But that is all.

Canarana is a common man of uncommon talent, a popular artist and a storyteller, and one of the fifty-five artists whose work creates the world of “Bandits & Heroes, Poets & Saints,” an NEH-funded exhibition at Detroit’s Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. The show was developed over the past twenty years by Con/Vida, a nonprofit that promotes the diverse cultures of the Americas as expressed through popular art.

Jackson and Cervenka, codirectors of Con/Vida as well as cocurators of the exhibition, met by chance more than twenty years ago while working in the University of Michigan art department—their offices happened to be next to each other—and became friends. Later, they joined a group of faculty who traveled to Brazil to pursue various overlapping interests. Jackson, an art historian, and Cervenka, an artist and Adrian Dominican sister involved in mission work, shared a mutual passion for popular art and have returned to Brazil annually ever since. There, the two women have developed personal relationships with many of the popular artists featured in the exhibit.

“What they are is the common people, really on the margins of their society economically and in terms of political influence, but they have this very, very rich culture that they draw from,” says Jackson. “So [this exhibit] is to help them tell the stories of their experience. It’s kind of ‘Brazil as seen through the eyes of the common people.’”

Northeast Brazil is among the poorest regions of the country, with the largest concentration of rural poverty in Latin America, according to the International Fund for Agricultural Development. The region also has the lowest life expectancy and tops the charts in infant mortality and illiteracy.

Challenges are bountiful not only in the sertão, but also in the coastal cities, some of which were founded over four hundred years ago, when South America was still a vast and mysterious New World soon to be ruled by sugar plantations, whose influence never really faded from northeastern Brazil—even after the affluence was sapped away by discoveries of gold and the production of coffee farther south. Colorful colonial buildings are visible throughout Salvador, most notably in the Pelourinho, Salvador’s historic center named for the whipping post that once stood in the middle of the plaza where slaves were publicly punished.

Staggering numbers of African slaves arrived in the Northeast along with the Portuguese. Approximately five million slaves arrived between 1500 and 1870 alone—for comparison’s sake, a half-million were sent into bondage to North America during those same years. These slaves carried their own religious and cultural traditions with them, traditions which melded with those of the Europeans and native Amerindians over the next five hundred years.

Many slaves continued to worship their own gods, even when forcibly converted to the Catholicism of their Portuguese masters. They often managed to do so by associating their deities—called orixás in Salvador—with the figures of saints possessing similar characteristics or symbolic associations. For example, the orixá Yemanja, a goddess of saltwater connected to motherhood and the colors white and blue, is associated with Mary, the mother of Jesus.

These associations continue today. Brazilians tie fluttering ribbons onto the gates of the Catholic church of Nosso Senhor do Bonfim as offerings to the orixás, and Candomblé practitioners are called filhos de santoschildren of the saints. Many Brazilians even attend both Catholic masses and Candomblé ceremonies, held in terreiros filled with the sound of drums and chants in Yorùbá. Filhos slowly dance around the room, their movements building in intensity with the music until the honored orixá descends to join the worshipers by manifesting himself through one of his devotees.

“Each orixá has a kind of mission,” says Cervenka. “Certain ones are there to tell you that you’re beautiful, others are there to tell you that you’re strong . . . and people are kind of dedicated to an orixá who reflects, or already is reflected in, their personality.”

One of the most important religious figures in Brazil is Mãe Stella de Oxossi, who serves as the spiritual head of a prominent Candomblé house in Salvador, Ilê Axé Opô Afonjá, “a spiritual family” that she described in a 2012 interview with Paula Santos, featured in the exhibit catalog.

“Candomblé is not a light thing; it is a serious business. It is commitment and responsibility,” Mãe Stella says. “We all appreciate the rain, appreciate the sun. In Candomblé, we also respect the hierarchy and respect our elderly. That is the basis of Candomblé. We have our liturgy, our principles, our dogmas, and all these things together are the way of Candomblé. Candomblé is about ancestry.”

Encouraged by Brazil’s revival of African culture in the 1970s and ‘80s, the number of Candomblé practitioners skyrocketed, particularly in urban areas. Markets brim with elaborate Camdomblé costumes, carved crucifixes, ferramentas, statuettes of saints, and images depicting saints and orixás in styles that range from traditional woodblock prints to acrylic and airbrush depictions reminiscent of pinups.

“Popular art takes on many forms,” Jackson says as a video of a Candomblé ceremony pans over one such picture on the wall of a terreiro. “In some ways, all of this art is about telling stories: keeping stories alive within a community or telling stories to outsiders.”

The heroic tradition of Northeast Brazil is also full of Robin Hood-like bandits and charismatic religious leaders, some of whom are even venerated as saints.

One of the most popular bandit-heroes, Lampião,rebelled against the near absolute power of government authorities and wealthy landowners in the 1920s. The son of a poor farmer, he forged together a group of outlaws that lived in the sertão, where they terrorized their wealthy enemies and sometimes performed great acts of generosity and kindness for their impoverished allies. As a result, Lampião became an inspiration to the common people and features widely in stories and songs. “When Lampião is around, even the worms feel empowered,” reads a piece of literatura de cordel that Jackson encountered on one of her visits to Brazil.

Literatura de cordel—or “stories of the string”—is a form of popular literature comprising stories and songs printed in little books that are clipped onto strings for display and sold in the marketplace for a few pennies. Stories range from current political satire to traditional tales such as Lampião’s.

“No one would need a label to tell that’s Lampião,” says Cervenka, pointing out the round glasses that identify him the same way a bow and arrows identifies the orixá Oxossi and a wheel identifies Saint Catherine.

“They’d know the whole story too,” adds Jackson. “How Lampião and his band were betrayed and the militia came in and captured and killed them. Well, the story goes on that they were all beheaded and the heads were shown around Brazil.”

Death at the hand of the authorities is a recurrent theme among popular Brazilian heroes, real and legendary.

An escaped slave named Zumbi led a community of free blacks—hidden in the sertão—to fight for the total abolition of slavery, but he was eventually betrayed, captured, and executed.

Anastácia, a mythical, blue-eyed African princess sold into slavery, was forced to wear a metal facemask as punishment—for resisting, it is often said, the advances of her master or for teaching her fellow slaves about their native gods. She died of gangrene.

The anniversary of Zumbi’s beheading is now nationally celebrated as a day of pride and awareness of Brazil’s African heritage. Anastácia is venerated as a saint by many, and she has her own shrine behind the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary of Black People.

“I think there’s inspiration in the resilience of the human spirit wherever you find it, and this exhibition is full of that,” says Jackson. “It’s a difficult history that has moments of real triumph and moments of oppression and rebellion. But it is also a history that has moments of creating a world of joy."

About the Author

Tory Cooney is an editorial intern at HUMANITIES.

Funding Information

Con/Vida received $340,000 in NEH support to create “Bandits & Heroes, Poets & Saints,” which is on exhibit in Detroit at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History until January 5, 2014.